In Company of Liars, British author Karen Maitland makes her U.S. debut with a novel that tips its hat deeply to The Canterbury Tales, executed with stunning skill and precision. Her medieval world is full of the fantasy and mystery you'd expect from the genre, but it also parallels our own culture more than we might expect.
It's 1348, and the Black Plague has begun its malignant spread across England. Our narrator, an itinerant relic peddler, has reluctantly allowed two minstrels to travel with him as they flee from the disease. From that trio, the company grows to nine (if we count the horse), among them a magician with an ax to grind, a gifted storyteller who just might be half swan and an eerily prescient child rune-reader. All have stories to tell—and something to hide. As they outrun the plague, it becomes apparent that they're being hunted by something else as well. But which one's secret threatens to destroy the whole group?
Maitland holds a doctorate in psycholinguistics, and she has crafted a smart, historically informed novel, effectively portraying an era dominated by faith and superstition. But the novel is an aesthetic treasure as well as an academic one. The characters are human and fascinating, and the excellently paced storyline is spooky and thrilling. Company of Liars would look delightful on stage or screen. But it's so vivid, so enchanted that it needs no visual aid.
Jessica Inman writes and reads in Tulsa, Oklahoma.